Climate Change Bill Faces Delays In Senate

While the House narrowly passed a climate change bill last summer, the Senate isn't expected to act until next spring. Five Senate committees have to weigh in before a final bill can go before the full Senate. The issue has taken a back seat to health care.

In early December, world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to begin talks on a new treaty to curb greenhouse gases and global warming. President Obama will attend the summit.

In urging action on climate change, the president says it's essential "that all countries do what is necessary to reach a strong operational agreement that will confront the threat of climate change while serving as a stepping stone to a legally binding treaty."

White House officials say the U.S. will propose targets for reducing greenhouse gases in line with what Congress is considering. But while the House narrowly passed a climate change bill last summer, no action by the Senate is expected until next spring.

That's a change from earlier this month, when Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was bullish on the outlook for the climate change bill he is co-sponsoring with Environment Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA). It was the same day that Boxer's panel had passed the bill without a single Republican showing up for the vote. Kerry approved of her damn-the-boycott, we're-voting-anyway attitude.

"We welcome a healthy debate on this," Kerry said, "but we don't need to play the delay game anymore around here."

But there are other delays. Five other Senate committees have to weigh in with their bills on climate change, and that legislation then has to be mashed into one bill for the full Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has conceded that he has given up on trying to tackle climate change this year and will turn to it "sometime in the spring."

'Stuck In Traffic Behind Health Care'

That was welcome news to Oklahoma's James Inhofe, the Senate's No. 1 climate change skeptic and the top Republican on the Environment Committee.

"It appears now evident, which we've known all along, and that is that we're not going to be passing anything in this country on cap-and-trade," Inhofe said.

Cap-and-trade seeks to curb global warming by capping carbon emissions and trading permits to pollute. Inhofe says momentum for climate change has slowed in the Senate because Americans have lost interest in the issue. Not so, says the Sierra Club's global warming director, David Hamilton.

"The main reason that this doesn't have the momentum that we would want is the fact that the issue is stuck in traffic behind health care," Hamilton said.

With the Senate now expected to debate its health care bill until Christmas, Boxer acknowledges that climate change has had to take a back seat.

"I'd like to deal with it yesterday, you know," she said. "But I don't think it means that there's no progress. I don't think it means that we're never going to do it. What I think it means is that the political agreement that's reached in Copenhagen should spur us on, as opposed to us spurring on Copenhagen."

Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says he's comfortable with the slow track.

"I think some people are trying to hurry the process too much," says Rockefeller, who's from a coal state. His panel has yet to schedule its hearings on climate change. "I think it's not unfair to say that if you use the word 'cap-and-trade,' there may be one-half to two-thirds of the United States Senate [who] could not explain what is meant by that — not a good way to sort of go into a bill of that scope and magnitude. I know that my coal miners, the people in West Virginia, they just know it to be a really bad word."

Seeking Middle Ground

Meanwhile, Sen. Kerry has teamed up with Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to draft a climate change bill with broader political appeal. Graham says both sides in this debate have to give ground.

"If you're Republican and you can't agree to emission controls, we don't have a lot to talk about," Graham says. "If you come to the table as a Democrat and said, 'I'm dead set against nuclear power and offshore drilling,' I don't think we have a lot to talk about. But if you're willing to find middle ground, we can get there."

Oklahoma Republican Inhofe, for his part, says he has decided on his next move.

"I have been the lead senator standing up and exposing the science, the costs and the hysteria behind global warming alarmism," he says, "and I will be traveling to Copenhagen."

No Senate-passed bill will be there to contrast with Inhofe's naysaying.

Copyright 2009 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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